By Assad Bhuglah
Mauritius has always been a land of immigrants. Over the past three hundred years, immigrants came to Mauritius for different reasons: navigators, explorers, colonizers, planters, slaves, lascars, craftsmen, sepoy-prisoners, indentured labourers and traders. Despite many difficulties, the immigrants, irrespective of their race, colour, religion and origin, forged new destinies in their adopted homeland. Each wave of migrants, in seeking its own freedom and economic well-being, helped to strengthen the fabric of the rainbow nation. It must be reckoned that every aspect of the Mauritian economy has profited from the contributions of the immigrants. In principle, no group can claim that it has more rights and more privileges than other groups of immigrants. The entire fabric of the Mauritian nation is made up of the descendants of immigrants.
Since over a decade now, Mauritius has started celebrating the Apravasi Day on 2nd November. Aapravasi is a Hindi word meaning immigrant. The name of Immigration Square in Port Louis harbour was changed to Aapravasi Ghat, meaning the same thing as its original name in English.
Viewing the arrival of Indian immigrants from a larger perspective, there are solid historical evidences that prove the presence of lascars (Indian sailors) in the island since 1735. They were brought here by Governor Mahé de Labourdonnais to help him in the huge task of building the harbour of Port Louis, where the basic maritime infrastructure bears their footprints and those very stony steps at the Apravasi Ghat, which the Indian Indentured labourers climbed for the first time on their arrival at Port Louis harbour, had existed there almost hundred years -- long before the (Indian) immigrants touched the shore of the city. Since the completion of the construction of the Port Louis harbour in the mid-1770s, all immigrants, irrespective of their origins, had walked up through this staircase -- a patrimony of all Mauritians.
Dr Idrice Ameer Goumany, who hailed from the lascar family that settled in Mauritius during the French colonial rule, serves as a bridge for the broken chapters of history about the arrival of Indian immigrants, especially the Indentured labourers who arrived as from 1834 not too long after the British took control of the island from the French.
Throughout the eighteenth century, thousands of lascars would be brought to Mauritius on a contract basis to work in the maritime sector. Many of them would opt to return to their homeland at the expiry of their contract but of those who chose to stay, would develop strong roots on the island and contribute significantly to the flourish of the capital Port Louis to making it a 'garden', so to say! In fact, the suburb where the majority of the lascars made their home, had a green space by the name of Jardin de la Plaine Verte. And, over the years, the entire region of Camp des Lascar would come to be subsumed in the name of "Plaine Verte."
The Goumanys had to evolve against difficult and volatile environment. Despite these odds, they were able to make significant upward social mobility within a cycle of three generations. The first Goumany had arrived in Port Louis to work as boatman; his son climbed the social ladder by becoming a businessman and his grandson graduated even higher as doctor. The motivating force behind that leapfrog was nothing else but education and social cohesion. In as much as they were devoted to a morally disciplined and religious life, they were, sure, ahead of their time in the pursuit of secular and modern education. The young Idrice Goumany grew up in an environment of social tension and racial discrimination, punctuated by a latent Anglo-French rivalry and a gradual shift in the demographic configuration in which the successive waves of Indian immigrants were outnumbering the existing inhabitants of the island.
In the 1880s, when the island of Mauritius was in dearth of professionals, it was a great achievement, indeed, for one of its own (fils du sol) to become qualified as a medical practitioner. Sure, it was a big exploit for someone coming from such a modest lascar background to have undertaken the long and perilous trip by ship to Europe, get enrolled in prestigious universities despite all kinds of restrictions imposed by the colonial establishment and the White oligarchy on the people of Indian and Creole origins.
Dr Idrice Goumany, hardly 27 years old and having completed his medical studies in Scotland in 1886, returned back to his homeland to be at the service of the nation. He sacrificed his life while saving the lives of others, more particularly the Indian indentured labourers who were affected by small pox and quarantined at Pointe aux Canonniers. Indeed, there was an outbreak of epidemics of smallpox in Mauritius during 1888-1889, caused by ships disembarking indentured labourers. The freshly arrived passengers were transported by boats from Port Louis harbour to Pointe aux Canonniers quarantine for treatment. At that time, no doctors responded to the call of the colonial government to go and treat the patients at the Quarantine Station because the disease was infectious and deadly. Dr Idrice Goumany voluntarily agreed to take charge of the quarantine. He worked with great dedication and professionalism. Unfortunately, he too caught the virus while on duty and died at the quarantine "un victime du devoir" (a victim to duty), so to say. He was buried with all the honours in the compound of the Quarantine Station which, years later, would be the site of the present Club Med.
His sacrifice and high sense of duty was long in the official circles, so to say. His exemplary services to the country and humanity were forgotten until 2015, when the government and the Apravasi Ghat Trust Fund favourably responded to the request from the Islamic Cultural Centre to also pay tribute to Dr. Goumany's memory in the context of the Apravasi Day celebration on November 02 every year. The event of this year will be marked by the launching of a book written by the undersigned. It is entitled ‘Dr Idice Ameer Goumany: The Forgotten Hero of Mauritius – a short-lived blossom of an emerging society during colonial time’.